Jia Zhangke: “I Want to Bring About Change in China”

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s new film, A Touch of Sin (天注定) screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. While it lost the festival’s top prize to French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, Jia’s film did take the prize for best screenplay.

A Touch of Sin is reported to depict violence, and is self-described as being “based on true events,” a fact that led many Chinese web-users to express surprise that such a cutting-edge social commentary made it past state censors. Before taking the prize, Jia talked with The Hollywood Reporter in Cannes. In the interview, Jia discusses the film’s motivations and influences, how it differs from his previous work, and his hopes to effect change in Chinese society through film:

Now the world’s second-largest movie market, China’s rise as a major player in the global film industry is firmly established. But director Jia Zhangke’s win of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes Sunday gave his country something it continues to hunger for: recognition as a creative force in world cinema, rather than merely a market for consumption.

[…]THR: I can’t think of a single recent Chinese film that addresses social and political issues so boldly that has gotten a mainstream release in China.

Jia: The film will indeed be released in China. Everyone in Cannes has been asking me about this. And the answer is: Yes, it has been approved for release in China.

THR: Wow. That would represent a big moment for the Chinese film industry, no?

Jia: I really want to bring about some changes in China — and not just freedom of speech or freedom of expression. I want to use that free spirit and put it into my films, to let everyone see that with that belief in the free spirit, we can tell stories that help propel society forward, which is ultimately far more important. [Source]

A South China Morning Post report on Jia’s victory in Cannes quoted similar sentiment from the writer/director’s acceptance speech:

“Cinema makes me live,” Jia said as he received the best screenwriting award on Sunday. “China is now changing so fast. I think film is the best way to me to look for freedom.” [Source]

Jia Zhangke is a member of China’s “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers (第六代导演). The Global Times quotes Jia on what sets this cohort of directors apart from their predecessors:

As one of the leading figures of the “Sixth Generation” movement of Chinese cinema, Jia’s works has been popular in major international film festivals. The most notable is “Still Life” which claimed the Venice Film Festival’s top award, the Golden Lion, in 2006.

[…]Jia Zhangke said, “We sixth generation of directors always choose a personal angle, a personal value to observe the society and observe the people. I think China needs personal experience and personal memories, which are very precious to art.”

For Jia and other Chinese directors, showing true images that accurately reflect the country and its people is the best way of reviving Chinese cinema and keeping it in tune in with the rest of the world. [Source]

The last Chinese national to win the best screenplay award at Cannes was Mei Feng for the 2009 screenplay to Spring Fever (春风沉醉的夜晚)—until now, Mei was the only Chinese national to take the award. Unlike Jia’s new film, Spring Fever was produced without the consent of PRC censors and in defiance of a 5-year ban placed on director Lou Ye by Chinese media regulator the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT).


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